In my research in the Textile Protection and Comfort Center at North Carolina State University, I work to better understand firefighters’ chemical exposures. I was initially drawn to this industry after learning that firefighters have an increased risk of cancer. The fire service industry is investing significant resources to better understand firefighters’ chemical exposures. While conducting my research, I have been working with standards and standards development processes to create methods that evaluate new decontamination methods and commercial products.

Firefighters, fire investigators, and other first responders often work in dangerous situations and occasionally life-threatening scenarios. Historically, thermal exposures have been the primary killer of firefighters. However, the introduction of the modern turnout (the protective ensemble worn by firefighters) has allowed firefighters to operate in dangerous environments with fewer injuries. The modern turnout is extremely protective and, when combined with mitigation strategies and protocols, can significantly lower the risk of injury. This has greatly reduced fatal injuries, although the number has remained at approximately 100 annually for the past few years.

Thermal exposures are an immediate threat, but chemical exposures have emerged as a more dangerous threat of late. The chemical exposures to which firefighters are subjected during a fire are not well understood. Older generations of firefighters would show off their dirty gear to new recruits, treating it as a badge of honor. Unfortunately, the “dirt” so proudly boasted about is often particulate matter that can house carcinogenic chemicals and is harmful if ingested or inhaled.

Over the past 30 years, researchers have studied firefighters’ chemical exposures, cancer incidence, and mortality rates. Several studies have established that firefighters have higher rates of testicular, lung, and prostate cancer (to name a few) than the general public (Tsai et al. 2015; Ma et al. 2006; Daniels et al. 2014; Demers et al. 1994; Kang et al. 2008). Recently, in the summer of 2022, the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared that firefighters’ occupational exposures are carcinogenic (Demers et al. 2022).

This confirmation of the negative health effects that occur from occupational exposures has prompted the fire service industry to acquire a better understanding of firefighters’ exposures and develop strategies to mitigate these exposures. As researchers and firefighters better understand the chemical exposures that can occur on the fireground, the behaviors of firefighters will slowly begin to change. Traditional mindsets are slowly changing, and new practices that encourage routine cleaning are becoming ever more popular.

In an effort to reduce firefighters’ chemical exposures, several skin cleansing wipe products and soaps/detergents have hit the market. The main idea behind these products is to remove contaminants before returning to the fire station to minimize absorption through the skin. Although many companies have good intentions with such products, firefighters are left with more questions than answers—questions such as “Are these products effective?” and “Are these products safe?” and “Which product is best for me?” The research to answer these questions has not been able to catch up to the rapid adoption of these products by some fire stations.

At this moment, some data are available on some of these products, but there are some questions surrounding the data. The largest question is the relevance of the data, since it is not generated from a standardized test method. This is due to the fact that there is no standardized test method for wipe efficacy for fireground contaminants because of the complexity of human skin and the fact that fireground contaminants are mostly particulate matter or gases. To assess whether a wipe can or cannot remove a contaminant from human skin, a material with physical and chemical properties similar to those of human skin must be used in conjunction with a particulate or gaseous contaminant or surrogate. In the absence of such a material, any methods used to test wipe efficacy will fail to incorporate these critical variables, which play a large role in dermal absorption.

I have been working to identify a synthetic material that mimics the physical and chemical properties of human skin as well as develop a way to contaminate surfaces with particulate matter. My goal is to validate both the synthetic skin model and contaminants so that a standardized test method can be developed to determine the efficacy of decontamination products. This will enable firefighters to make informed decisions about which product may be best for them and reduce their exposures to harmful fireground contaminants.

Chandler Probert is a PhD student studying fiber and polymer science at North Carolina State University. His research interests include protective textiles, occupational health and safety, environmental exposure, analytical chemistry, and toxicology. He is passionate about improving the health and safety of individuals who choose to work in dangerous occupations.

Chandler Probert is a PhD student studying fiber and polymer science at North Carolina State University. His research interests include protective textiles, occupational health and safety, environmental exposure, analytical chemistry, and toxicology. He is passionate about improving the health and safety of individuals who choose to work in dangerous occupations.

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